In the 19th century, an art form known as lithophanes was all the rage in Western Europe. These fine engravings were generally made from translucent materials such as porcelain or wax. When backlit, a brilliant 3D image appeared and changed its characteristics in response to variations in the light source. Today, researchers have revived this art form to create tactile graphics to illustrate scientific data that shines with high resolution. According to a recent article published in the journal Science Advances, these lithophanes are accessible to sighted and visually impaired people, making them a universal tool for visualizing scientific data.
“This research is an example of art making science more accessible and inclusive. Art is saving science from itself,” said co-author Bryan Shaw, biochemist at Baylor. “Science data and imagery – for example, the stunning images from the new Webb Telescope – are inaccessible to blind people. We show, however, that thin translucent tactile graphics, called lithophanes, can make all these images accessible everyone, regardless of view. As we like to say, “data for everyone”.
The word “lithophane” comes from the Greek litho (stone or rock) and Phainein (to make appear), popularly translated as “light in the stone”. The roots of this art form can be traced back to ancient China, as far back as 1,000 years before the Tang Dynasty. (Historical sources describe paper-thin bowls with hidden decorations.) But to this day, no actual lithophane is known to have been in China before 1800.
Who exactly perfected the process of making lithophanes is still debated among historians. The common process in the 19th century was to etch a 3D design into a thin sheet of translucent wax or porcelain using traditional relief and intaglio engraving techniques. More light would shine through the parts of the sculpture where the wax was thinnest.
These lithophanes were between a sixteenth of an inch and a quarter of an inch thick. They were displayed as plaques, hung in windows or in front of shields with burning candles behind them as a source of light. Lithophanes could also be used as night lights, fireplace screens, tea warmers or ornaments engraved with erotic images. American industrialist Samuel Colt filled his Hartford, Connecticut home with over 100 lithophanes and commissioned 111 lithophane versions of a photograph of himself to give to friends and associates.
The technique fell out of favor after the invention of photography, but the advent of 3D printing has revived interest. Today, lithophanes are typically made with plastic, 3D printed from any 2D image that has been converted into a 3D topographer, according to Shaw and his co-authors, which they did with a free online software. Four of these co-authors have been blind since birth or childhood, but still successfully completed their doctorates. But these are rare examples. Finding a way to create universal tactile science graphs that both blind and sighted people can use would remove a long-standing barrier that has kept many visually impaired people from accessing science.
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